Chiles-Whitted UFO encounter

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The Chiles-Whitted UFO encounter occurred on July 24, 1948 when two American commercial pilots reported that their Douglas DC-3 had nearly collided with a strange torpedo shaped object flying near them.

It was an important UFO sighting for several reasons: it was perhaps the first that occurred at close distance (allegedly within a few hundred feet); and it was reported by two very experienced pilots, Clarence Chiles and John Whitted. Both pilots had been decorated for their service as airmen during World War II, and both were regarded as valuable, respectable employees of Eastern Air Lines. Chiles, in particular, was highly esteemed by his peers and by his employer.

It was a pivotal case for the personnel of the U.S. Air Force's Project Sign, and was a main reason they championed the extraterrestrial hypothesis as the best explanation for UFOs.

Prelude[edit]

As the Air Force's official UFO investigation group, Project Sign collected UFO sightings from all over the world. Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, head of Project Blue Book in the early 1950s, wrote:

On July 21 [1948] a curious report was received from the Netherlands. The day before, several persons reported seeing a UFO through high broken clouds over The Hague. The object was rocket shaped, with two rows of windows along the side. It was a poor report, very sketchy and incomplete, and it probably would have been forgotten except that four nights later a similar UFO almost collided with an Eastern Airlines DC-3.

Encounter[edit]

In the early morning hours of July 24, 1948, Pilot Clarence Chiles and co-pilot John Whitted were flying an Eastern Airlines Douglas DC-3 from Mobile, Alabama to Montgomery, at about 5000 feet in altitude.

At about 2:45 a.m., Chiles spotted a hazy red cloud, somewhat similar to aircraft exhaust. It was slightly above them, and to the front-right of the DC-3 by about half a mile. Chiles saw an aircraft, and, thinking it the source of the exhaust, pointed it out to Whitted and said, "Look, here comes a new Army jet job." (Story, 71) However, they quickly realized that the object was unlike a jet plane, and was moving towards them at very high speed. Air Force Captain Edward J. Ruppelt would write that within a matter of seconds,

[t]he UFO was now almost on top of them. Chiles racked the DC-3 into a tight left turn. Just as the UFO flashed by about 700 feet to the right, the DC-3 hit turbulent air. Whitted looked back just as the UFO pulled up in a steep climb.
Both the pilots had gotten a good look at the UFO and were able to give a good description to the Air Force intelligence people.

They had seen the object for about 10 to 15 seconds. Both men described the object as cigar- or torpedo-shaped, about 100 feet in length, and about three times the diameter of a B-29 bomber. The "fuselage" was entirely smooth, with no wings, projections or fins. A bright red-orange exhaust was emanating from the object's rear, and was more orange at the outer edges of the exhaust, but grew redder when it rose in altitude. The exhaust extended approximately 30 to 50 feet behind the object. They heard no sound from the object as it sped past the DC-3.

Perhaps most intriguingly, the witnesses asserted that the object had what appeared to be two rows of rectangular "windows." A few weeks after the sighting, Chiles was to write that "there were two rows of windows, which indicated an upper and lower deck, from inside these windows a very bright light was glowing. Underneath the ship there was a blue glow of light." (Clark, 182) The light from the object was so bright that both men were blinded by its intensity for a few seconds.

There were only a few differences in the observations of the two men: Chiles thought he observed a conical shape at the object's nose that was somewhat similar to a radar pole, and he described a glassy window at the object's front that was somewhat similar to a cockpit window. Whitted thought the object was slightly further away than Chiles described, and he did not see the cockpit-like "windshield" or the "radar pole" at the object's nose. Chiles recalled the "exhaust" as being less intense, and not flaring out as much as Whitted observed.

Given the early hour of the flight, most of the passengers were asleep. One of them, Clarence L. McKelvie, would later offer corroborative eyewitness testimony. He asserted that he saw an extraordinarily bright light from his window seat in the aircraft, describing it as unlike lightning. He later told Project Sign investigators that the light seemed to have moved parallel to the plane, but at a higher altitude.

Within seconds of the close encounter, Chiles asked Eastern Airlines flight controllers, via two-way-radio, if any known experimental aircraft were being flown in the region. There was none.

Aftermath and publicity[edit]

The flight landed at Birmingham a little before 4.00 a.m. The pilots went to a hotel, only to learn that their sighting had already generated some interest. Within a few hours, they were interviewed at radio station WCON, and also by newspaper reporter William Key. The UFO report earned national press attention.

People had quickly suggested that the object had been a meteor, but the pilots both flatly rejected this: they had both seen many meteors in their careers, and this object was certainly not a meteor. On the contrary, they insisted that the flying fuselage they had observed was "a man-made thing." (Clark, 182)

Within days, Sign investigators interviewed eyewitnesses Chiles, Whitted and McKelvie.

Other witnesses[edit]

In addition to the report from The Hague, Sign investigators discovered several eyewitnesses, who seemed to have seen the same object Chiles and Whitted observed

One of the witnesses was Walter Massey, a ground-crew chief at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, about 150 miles from Montgomery; he claimed to have seen a very similar object about an hour before Chiles and Whitted's encounter. Like the pilots, he said it was a cylindrical object that seemed to be two or three times larger than a B-29 "with a long stream of fire coming out the tail end … I noticed a faint glow on the belly of the wingless object." (Clark, 182) Massey was certain the object was not a meteor.

Ruppelt also writes of another Air Force witness:

A few days later another report from the night of July 24 came in. A pilot, flying near the Virginia/North Carolina state line, reported that he had seen a "bright shooting star" in the direction of Montgomery, Alabama, at about the exact time the Eastern Airlines DC-3 was "buzzed."

Explanations[edit]

The Pentagon first suggested that the men had seen a weather balloon, but this explanation was quickly withdrawn. Within days, an Air Force spokesman admitted the sighting was credible, further stating: "this country has no plane resembling a double-decked, jet-propelled, wingless transport shooting a 40-foot flame out of its back end." (Clark, 182)

Astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a consultant to Sign, argued that if the pilots had reported accurately what they'd seen, that "no astronomical explanation" was even remotely plausible. However, he did offer an admittedly "far-fetched" explanation, suggesting that the pilots had seen an "extraordinary meteor." (Clark, 183)

The men of Project Sign, however, had their own ideas. Ruppelt wrote

According to the old timers at ATIC, this report shook them worse than the Mantell Incident. This was the first time two reliable sources had been really close enough to anything resembling a UFO to get a good look and live to tell about it [A few months earlier, Mantell had died in pursuit of a UFO].

Sign's personnel were very intrigued by the Chiles-Whitted report. They knew that rockets could fly, but there was no known technology that could account for a rocket being as maneuverable as the pilots had asserted. They pored through obscure technical journals (including the work of German engineer Ludwig Prandtl) and eventually concluded that a "flying fuselage" was feasible if the object had a power source that used nuclear energy.

Based on this, and other UFO cases, Sign's personnel began to favor the extraterrestrial hypothesis. Though there was no direct physical evidence, they thought that there was simply no Earthly technology that could account for some UFO sightings.

They allegedly wrote the Estimate of the Situation to argue their case. The document was gradually forwarded to the highest authorities in the Air Force, who rejected it, primarily because of a lack of physical proof. The Estimate was ordered destroyed, and no copies are known to survive.

However, Sign's personnel refused to abandon the interplanetary hypothesis, even when explicitly ordered to do so. Due to conflicts with "anti-saucer" elements in the U.S. military, Sign was dismantled and replaced with Project Grudge, which conducted little to no research, and which tended towards debunking of any UFO reports.

Hynek's meteor explanation became the official Air Force explanation for the Chiles-Whitted incident, though his qualification was not mentioned in later discussion of the sighting.

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